These are a couple of pictures of a Harlequin Ladybird, which we found on our car windscreen at home the other day.

The Harlequin ladybird are originally from Asia and were first recorded in the UK in 2004. Since then they have rapidly spread and are now one of the commonest species found in parks and gardens. The amazing thing is the variations, over 100 to date, that can be found, but most are red with black spots and black and white markings on the head. This was the first time I had seen a Orange variant of this species. there are some even rarer variants such as red or yellow spots on a black background.

More commonly seen variant of Harlequin Ladybird

following our week in Norfolk, sue and I drove around the wash to South Lincolnshire for another week. We spent most of the week exploring the nature reserves on the northern shore of the wash.

Frampton marshes is a RSPB reserve near Boston which I think is one of the best reserves in the UK. It is not different this time as I saw a Black Stork, a visitor from Europe, which had been present for a number of days. Sadly although we saw it flying across the reserve we didn’t manage to photograph it.

Gibraltar point is a national nature reserve, which is on a spit of land south of Skegness. The highlight here was a group of Spoonbills, once a rare species but now becoming established in a number of places in England.

On one day we traveled north to East Yorkshire to visit the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands to see a white-tailed Lapwing. It breeds on inland marshes in Iraq, Iran and southern Russia. The Iraqi and Iranian breeders are mainly residents, but Russian birds spend the winter in India and north east Africa. So it is a long way from home. the first record in the UK was in July 1975 and it has been seen here on less than 10 occasions since.

On the final day we went to Whisley nature park, near Lincoln. I have never visited here before but found it a fantastic place. Highlights seen here were a Hobby, Little Stint, Little Ringed Plover and Wood Sandpiper, although all too distant to photograph.

A fantastic week

Sue and I spent a week in Norfolk in early September this year.

On one day we went into Sheringham, a pleasant town on the coast.

Sheringham is the eastern terminus of the North Norfolk Railway. They were holding a Gala day on the day we were there so there were lots of historic locomotives to be seen.

Another day we went to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. The highlight was an excellent view of Common snipe

We also went to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Cley Marshes. The highlights of the visit were views of a Common Crane and a Cattle Egret.

Our third trip to a nature reserve was to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney.

It was a very good week and we enjoyed visiting some of the wonderful nature reserves in North Norfolk.

Clouds

Posted: September 21, 2021 in Landscape, Natural History

This week just some pictures of clouds taken on a recent walk. I am fascinated by the complex shapes and the way the light interacts with them.

My weekly wildlife walk takes me across the grounds of the estate where I live to the Tarn, a local park around a small lake. I am very fortunate to live on an estate with really nice grounds adjacent to a golf course and a park and so we see lots of wildlife.

After leaving the estate a short stretch of road leads to the entrance to the Tarn, descending from street level past the old ice well of Eltham House (now the clubhouse of the golf course).

I do this walk once a week and record all the wildlife I can see and hear. The results are then reported back to a number of different schemes set up to monitor the wildlife in the UK.

This week it is rather quiet. The Canada and Greylag Geese flocks are absent, they use a number of different sites in the area. There are good numbers of Mallard, Coot and Moorhens, so they have had good breeding seasons. The resident pair of Egyptian Geese still have 3 young but these are now indistinguishable from their parents. No dragonflies were seen, which is surprising as we usually have Common Darter present during August and only one butterfly, a single Speckled Wood was seen on the whole walk. It seems to have been a poor year for butterflies locally.

A couple of days ago I was going to visit a friend for the first time this year. As I waited for the bus in Eltham I noticed a seat which hadn’t been there before. It was dedicated to John of Eltham. It wasn’t a new seat so I imagine it had been moved there from another location during the changes that were made to the High Street layout during the pandemic. Anyway I wondered who John of Eltham was as I hadn’t come across him before.

John of Eltham

John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall was born at Eltham Palace in August 1316, the second son of King Edward II. His childhood was not a happy one as his father and mother (Isabella of France) were at war with each other, Isabella having allied herself with rebels trying to overthrow the King. In 1326 she invaded England from France and King Edward was captured and forced to abdicate in favour of their eldest son, also Edward, who became King Edward III. Despite his young age, John became a highly trusted advisor to his elder brother and occupied a number of important posts including ‘Guardian of the realm’ deputising for the King when he was away at war. Few details are known about John’s life, although records show a number of attempted, but ultimately abortive diplomatic marriages. He was a commander of the army at the battle of Halidon Hill, defeating the Scots and later in south west Scotland, supporting Edward Balliol’s claim to the Scottish throne. In some Scottish histories he is remembered as the man who commanded that Lesmahagow Abbey be burnt down, even though it was full of people. It is unclear whether this was actually true or not. In some versions of this story, John’s brother, King Edward was so enraged at this barbarous act that he killed John himself in fury. In fact John died at Perth in September 1336, aged 20, probably of a fever. He was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey.

John of Eltham’s tomb in Westminster Abbey

On Sunday Sue and I travelled down to Kent to meet our friends Keith and Elaine as we were all going on a boat trip around the Isle of Sheppey, which lies of the north coast of Kent.

The Island is separated from the mainland by a stretch of water known as The Swale. It is not a river since it has no source and no estuary, joining the River Thames near Whitstable and the River Medway near Queenborough. And it was at Queenborough that our journey commenced as we joined the Jacob Marley for our trip.

We set off down the Swale. Originally the island was only reached via ferries but when the railway arrived, a bridge was built to carry traffic and the trains across the Swale onto the island. The current bridge dates from 1960. The problem was that this had to be raised and lowered to let some boats into the Swale, particularly at high tide so in 2006 a high level road bridge was built next to the railway-road bridge so traffic could flow to and from the island to the mainland without any hinderance from ships on the Swale.

After passing under the bridge we proceeded past Ridham dock, the last working dock on the Swale.

Although there is still plenty of evidence of past commercial activities

Once past Ridham, there is open country on both sides of the Swale. On Sheppey, we pass the famous Elmley Nature Reserve, once managed by the RSPB, but now an independent company. A Hobby flies over the boat on its migration south and there are lots of wading birds returning from their Breeding grounds feeding or roosting on the mudflats. Some maybe going further south and some may remain here for the winter. Large numbers of Little Egrets, once a rare bird in the UK, are seen feeding along the mudbanks.

The previous day had seen the Medway barge race and so we encountered a number of different sailing barges making their way back to their moorings.

At the eastern end of the island we come to Horse Sands where there is a small seal colony with both Common and Grey seals present.

Reaching the eastern end of the Island we turn west along the north coast. Soon we see 2 Artic Skuas chasing gulls. These birds are like large gulls and they chase smaller seabirds hoping to make them drop the food they have caught rather than catch their own. A little way further we see another Skua closing on the boat from behind. It looks different as it flies low to the water, but it overtakes the boat and is lost from sight by us before we can confirm its identity. Our conclusion was that it was probably a juvenile Long-tailed Skua, which is quite rare for the Thames, but we couldn’t be absolutely sure. Unlike the adults, the juveniles do not have the Long tail streamers which give it it’s name. The following day up to 20 were seen in the Swale so it is likely that our unconfirmed identification was correct.

Out in the estuary we can see the old wartime defense forts and the more modern Thames wind-farm.

Looking to land we can see where the island is eroding.

We pass the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, a wartime munitions carrier, that ran aground and broke up off Sheerness. Much of its cargo is still aboard and it is estimated if it ever blew up then houses would be affected by the shockwave in Sheerness and in Southend on the opposite side of the Thames and a wave up to 5m high would hit both coasts. Soon there will be nothing to see as there are plans to remove the masts to relieve the weight on the superstructure which is breaking up.

Soon we are back at the western end of the Island passing the docks at Sheerness

And then onto Queenborough where we disembark. A great trip full of interest and some excellent birdwatching as well.

Greenwich Reach

Posted: August 24, 2021 in Birds, Landscape, London, Natural History, UK
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Out for my monthly survey walk along the River Thames at Greenwich counting the waterbirds using the river. Even in the summer months when it is very quiet there is always plenty of activity on the river to see.

In addition my walk is opposite the historic town of Greenwich.

At the west end of the walk there are views up river towards central London

At the eastern end is the Millenium Dome, now known as the O2, a concert and exhibition venue.

But what about the bird survey. There are the first signs of birds returning from their breeding grounds – Black-headed Gulls which have been almost absent since April were back with about 150 seen on the walk. Other Gull numbers were up slightly and I would expect this increase to continue over the next couple of months. A Group of 16 Canada geese was more then I had seen previously here so it will be interesting to see if they stay on the river or are just moving through.

Other things of note were a Eurasian Sparrowhawk seen flying high over one of the riverside housing developments and a Great Cormorant perched on jetty – unfortunately he refused to turn round and so i only got a back view.

My first trip into Central London for nearly 18 months was to visit the British Museum to see a couple of exhibitions which were due to close in the next few weeks.

The first exhibition was about the Roman Emperor Nero. The traditionally held view is that he was a mad, cruel man who did anything to hang onto power, but this is largely taken from writings after his death. Contemporary evidence suggests that for much of his reign he was extremely popular with the people of Rome, if not it’s elite and nobility, from whom most history writers were drawn. One myth is that he ‘fiddled while Rome burnt’ or even that his excesses in burning Christians led to the fire. Evidence shows that Nero was not in Rome when the fire started, but on hearing of it rushed back to the city and organised the fighting of the fire and the relief effort. It is true however, that in order to deflect any blame from the Imperial authority, he did blame the Christians and instigate a harsh persecution as a punishment. In fact, in many ways, he was the Roman equivalent of some Populist leaders we have encountered in modern day history.

Eventually he lost the support of the people and the senate took this opportunity to move against him. Seeing the signs, Nero committed suicide rather than be taken by the authorities. This was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and after a year during which 4 Emperors reigned, some for only a matter of days, Vespasian emerged as the strongest candidate and assumed the purple. Roman society tried to eliminate any reference to Nero, statues were destroyed or taken down and some, such as the one below, were re-carved into likenesses of the new Emperor.

Thomas a Becket was the clerk to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II and eventually became Chancellor of the Kingdom. He and King Henry were good friends and worked well together. Henry had an ongoing argument with the church authorities about whether members of the church should be tried in secular or church courts and in attempting to win this he arranged for Thomas to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that his friend in this post would strengthen his position. He intended that Thomas should combine that role with continuing as chancellor, but to Henry’s surprise Thomas resigned his court post and argued firmly for the independence of the church courts. This led to a rapid worsening in relations between the two. On one occasion, when in France, Henry heard that Thomas had once again defied him and a small band of knights set out immediately for Canterbury. Did Henry send them or know where they had gone? Did they mean to kill the archbishop or merely to arrest him? These are questions to which the answers will probably never be known. What is known is that on the night of 29 December 1170 they arrived at Canterbury and insisted that Thomas accompany them to Winchester to answer for his actions. Thomas refused and the knights killed him in the cathedral.

Thomas was canonised by the Pope a mere two years after his death. King Henry did public penance at Thomas’ tomb but took no action against the Knights although the Pope excommunicated them. They later travelled to Rome in penance and were sent by the Pope to serve as Knights in the Holy land for a period of 14 years as their penance for the killing.

The weather forecast wasn’t promising but Keith and I decided to further explore the marsh at Tilbury Fort in Essex. We spent the morning in Gravesend and walked the usual route along the river and although the river was quite except for gulls, the gorge in the park produced 2 Garden Warblers, a Reed Warbler and a Grey Wagtail.

Making our way back along the promenade we caught the ferry over to Tilbury. On landing our attention was immediately drawn to a falcon chasing a group of Starlings. At first I thought it was a peregrine, but quickly realised it was too small and was actually a Hobby. I think a Starling would be too big for a hobby to catch (usual food is things like Dragonflies) so I can only think it was either practicing its flying or simply having some fun. It moved off quickly west following the river. On our last visit we followed the river walk but today we turned inland along the western edge of the marshes that surround the fort. Oystercatcher and Shelduck were on the river shore.

Little Egret, Kestrel, Lapwing, Grey Heron and a large number of gulls were on the marsh but sadly no other wading birds. A group of Common Swift passed over heading south. It was as we reached the far end of the path that the weather finally broke and we were forced to seek shelter from heavy rain. Once this had passed we made our way back to The World’s End, a pub on the river for some welcome refreshment.

Little Egret (Photo by Keith)

Returning to the ferry, Keith spotted a small brown butterfly in the vegetation, a Brown Argus, which is a species that I rarely see and so it was great to have a long look and to see all the identifying features. It was a good way to end the day.

Brown Argus (Photo by Keith)